Playback Memphis program creates space for local nonprofits to ‘stumble upon epiphanies’

Finding one’s voice in the world can be a challenge for many, much less members of marginalized groups. However, through Playback Memphis’ Community Matters program, area nonprofits are strengthening their organizations — and their members’ well-being — through a theater-based environment.

“We created Community Matters to serve organizations who may have some strategic initiative and they want to do some team-building,” says Ann Wallace, program director for Playback Memphis. “They may have situations on staff where participants have the need to have their voices heard. They may not have a way. They may be from a marginalized community. The artform gives them a way of having their voices heard.”

Dating back to 1975, Playback is an interactive-style improv theater. Audience members are encouraged to relate stories from their lives, which are promptly played out. Over the years, it has expanded to over 70 countries. Playback Memphis’ executive director Virginia Murphy was in one of the original Playback theaters in New York, before returning home.

“The heart of it is…making space for organizations who wouldn’t be able to readily afford the experience. It gives their participants space to have voice. Space to express themselves. Space to be empowered and stumble upon epiphanies…Touch humanity with other people,” says Wallace. “No one is feeling coerced or forced, but there is an empowerment in speaking your voice and sharing your personal story.”

Playback Memphis is an interactive-style improv theater.
In addition to giving participants a platform to express themselves, a willing ear is just as important to Playback’s method.

“A core practice of Playback is empathetic listening. We teach this model of listening where you just listen. You’re not listening to respond and share your side of the story. You’re not listening to give advice. You are there just as a human being taking in what this other person is sharing,” says Wallace. “It’s a different kind of listening, as well. That is one of the strongest tools that participants take with them, is that deep and generous empathetic listening.”

After a nonprofit is selected, a workshop and performance is scheduled where they will work under the direction of the Playback team. Applications are currently being accepted. The deadline is Friday, Nov. 25. There is no cost to apply.

Prices for the program range from $250 to $750, depending on the ability of the organization. Most of the costs are covered through a grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission. There are several sponsors, too. Six shows are held per year.

Previous partners include area nonprofits like Bridges, Memphis Area Women’s Council, Peer Power, and the Refugee Empowerment Program. Six public shows are held per year. The next is scheduled for Dec. 10. By invitation only, they are held at the Playback Memphis Theater located inside First Congregational Church at 1000 Cooper St.

“It’s kind of a hybrid where it’s not directly a performance, but we may get in a circle and ask reflective questions. So we actually curate a reflective experience where there are theater games and opportunities to share,” says Wallace. 

Through Playback Memphis’ Community Matters program, area nonprofits are strengthening their organizations — and their members’ well-being — through a theater-based environment.
What is gleaned during the Memphis Matters performance is used during the private shows, which are held for different organizations throughout the community. Held by engagement, the performances feature several actors, as well as conductor-led musicians. 

“We are also going to give them free tickets to the show, where their nonprofit is featured. They can bring their paraphernalia. We’ll talk about their mission,” says Wallace. “We’ll direct people to their website and the work they’re doing and encourage people to give to their nonprofit as well.”

To learn more about Playback Memphis’ Community Matters program, visit, visit them on Facebook, or call (901) 264-0841.
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Read more articles by Jim Coleman.

Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.